We still have much to learn from the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. | COMMENTARY

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, where he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the country’s great orators, writers and thinkers, and his words continue to shape American views on equity, justice and moral purpose today, nearly a quarter century after the Black civil rights leader was fatally shot on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. While the racist assassin may have taken King’s life, it’s clear that no one will ever be able to silence the wisdom of the Baptist minister and Nobel Prize winner.

We suspect that King, who would have been 94 on Jan. 15, might not have approved of all the ways in which his words are being used today, however. He is often quoted out of context by politicians on either side of the aisle seeking to make some point or another — most egregiously by Republican lawmakers who attempt to use King’s thoughts to justify restrictive policies (like ending affirmative action) or to demonstrate concern for racial unity while actively supporting racist members within their party.


Minor celebrities, too, are guilty of co-opting King’s wisdom. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers misquoted King’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail” to explain why he played football without a COVID vaccination in 2021. And magician Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame, misattributed a teacher’s words to King in remarking on the death of al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden in 2011.

That same year, the National Park Service also misquoted King — on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial installed in Washington D.C. Paraphrasing from a 1968 sermon King gave in Atlanta, the monument read: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” But King’s actual quote was: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace, I was a drum major for righteousness, and all the other shallow things will not matter.”


The shortened version of the statement, which some said made King sound arrogant, was removed in 2013. It was one of more than a dozen King quotes that are part of the memorial. Only one is on the statue of King itself: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The line is from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the inspiration for the King monument, a towering statue of the man emerging from stone.

We list here the remaining memorial quotes, spread between the monument’s north and south walls, in the order King issued them, most recent first. We hope you will reflect on the words as you read them to honor this wise man, whose birth we celebrate as a national holiday today and from who we still have much to learn.

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

— Washington National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

— Christmas sermon, Atlanta, Georgia, 1967.

“Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

— New York City, April 4, 1967.


“I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.”

“It is not enough to say ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but the positive affirmation of peace.”

— Anti-War Conference, Los Angeles, California, Feb. 25, 1967.

“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”

— Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965.

 American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. receives the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo on Dec. 10, 1964.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”


“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”

— Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 1964.

“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

— From the “I Have A Dream” speech made in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

— Letter from Birmingham, Alabama, jail, April 16, 1963.


“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

— “Strength to Love,” published by Beacon Press in 1963.

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”

— Youth March for Integrated Schools, Washington D.C., April 18, 1959.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”


— “Stride Toward Freedom,” published by Harper & Row in1958

“We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

— Montgomery, Alabama, Dec. 5, 1955.

SOURCE: The National Park Service

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